August 3, 2015

Review: Time Bandits (1981)

“God isn't interested in technology. He cares nothing for the microchip or the silicon revolution. Look how he spends his time, forty-three species of parrots! Nipples for men!” – Evil Genius (David Warner)

Director: Terry Gilliam

Writers: Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin

Producers: George Harrison, Denis O'Brien, Terry Gilliam and Neville C. Thompson

Studio: HandMade Films

Major Stars: David Rappaport, Sean Connery, Ian Holm, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Katherine Helmond, Shelley Duvall, David Warner, Kenny Baker, Ralph Richardson, Craig Warnock

There are few directors that take more risks than Terry Gilliam. He is uncompromising in what he wants to show and how to show it. His films reward careful viewing and punish the lazy movie-goer. If you only watch Time Bandits with a casual eye, you'll miss out on an unique sci-fi film that is loads of fun to watch.

Gilliam tackles a theme no less than the evils of modernization. From the get-go, we see our protagonist, 10-year old Kevin (Warnock), ignored by his parents because they are obsessed with their television or the latest kitchen gadgets. Kevin is a dreamer, who reads books about ancient Greece and the Middle Ages. After a bizarre dream, he stays awake to see if it was a dream. Instead, a gang of dwarfs fall out of his closet.

They are on the run from the Supreme Being because they stole his map. A map that shows holes in time and space that one can use to travel anywhere. And when the Supreme Being finds them, Kevin joins them as they flee. Gilliam sets all this up in less than 10 minutes, which is how a film should work. It's amazing how many films screw around for 20-30 minutes before they get to the story itself.

The dwarfs are led by Randall (Rappaport). They worked for the Supreme Being until he demoted them, so they stole the map and decided to commit robberies in different times to become rich. Kevin is looking for something else; a father figure that pays attention to him. As they travel through time, they meet various people like Napoleon (Holm), Agamemnon (Connery) and, unfortunately for them, the Evil Genius (Warner). He wants the map to break free from his castle and destroy the Supreme Being, so he tries to lure the group to his castle that is stuck in the Time of Legends.

It's no mistake that Kevin finds the father figure he wants in Agamemnon; it's the time period in the movie most removed from modern technology. Just as it is no mistake that the Evil Genius is obsessed with technology. Gilliam makes the case that technology binds us and denies us our freedom and he hits that theme throughout the movie. Even the ending, as abrupt, shocking and arguably cruel as it is, is about liberating ourselves from technology and embracing the freedom our minds can provide.

There are parts of the film that are genuinely hilarious. Napoleon is obsessed with the height of great military leaders. Warner plays the Evil Genius so well that every scene with him gets a laugh or two. Ralph Richardson, as the Supreme Being, steals the end of the movie with his portrayal of the Almighty as a slightly absent-minded but all-powerful bureaucrat.

I think there are also moments where the film drags a little. As funny as moments were when the gang was captured by the Ogre and his wife in the Time of Legends, it all seemed kind of pointless. Although, to be fair, the boat they used (and the gang then steals) lines up one of the most awesome visuals I have seen in a movie; a moment of pure, creative genius. And the reappearance across time of Vincent and Pansy (Palin and Duvall) as lovers always finding themselves in a bad way was cute, but it felt superfluous to me.

But that is more than outweighed by all the great stuff in this film. The gang singing "Me and My Shadow" to Napoleon on a stage in a bombed-out Italian city. A bumbling Robin Hood (Cleese) and his band of less-than-merry men. And the interactions between the dwarfs themselves are hilarious. All that is thanks to a really good script written by Gilliam and Palin.

Peter Biziou's great cinematography on a small budget brings a lot of realism to scenes that could have easily looked cheap. He does a great job in making deserts look endless, castles appear ominous, and a bombed-out city looking like a bombed-out city. He went on to win the Oscar for Best Cinematography with Mississippi Burning. He also DPed one of my personal favorites, Richard III. Time Bandits was one of his earlier films but you can see that talent already present in his work.

Another important element is the costume design by James Acheson. This was his first film after doing Doctor Who for the BBC. The gang wears a hodgepodge of various uniforms with bandoleers slung across their waists. The Evil Genius' costume is this wicked design of black and crimson red. The scenes in ancient Greece are full of colorful robes. The costumes so perfectly evoke the personalities of the characters. Even the Supreme Being's classic suit says as much about him as his words. Acheson has won three Oscars for costume design since then, so Gilliam found a gem in hiring him for the film.

And kudos to Palin for writing the movie with idea of casting little people in the role of the Bandits. He didn't have to do that. And he played the film straight; they weren't mocked or used for a cheap laugh a single time. They had a genuine opportunity to act without all of that preconceived bullshit some people have and to a man they knocked it out of the park. Time Bandits is a forgotten film without Rappaport and his co-actors in those roles. They are the reason for its success.

I cannot say enough good things about Time Bandits. It's a funny, thoughtful sci-fi film that has a serious theme but delivers it with some laughs. On the current list I would put it between Rollerball and They Live with it being closer to the former. Not too many sci-fi films can talk about free will and the dangers of technology while being entertaining and funny. But Time Bandits does it with ease. Definitely a must-own for anyone who loves sci-fi or movies in general.


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